Tag Archives: Hutchinson

The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath: A well turned out chiller

Cover imageI’ve enjoyed several of Patrick McGrath’s novels, some of them with a distinctly Gothic flavour. Those of you who’ve read Asylum will know what I mean. For some reason, I’d got it into my head that The Wardrobe Mistress inhabited similar territory which turns out to be not entirely the case. Set against the background of East End fascism in 1947, still bubbling away despite the suppression of the Blackshirts, McGrath’s novel explores the anguish of grief through Joan, widow of the late lamented Charlie Grice, star of the West End.

Joan cuts a slightly dour if striking figure. Handsome rather than beautiful, she dresses meticulously for Gricey’s funeral, aware that all theatreland’s eyes will be upon her. Gricey fell to his death just after a heated exchange with his son-in-law. Joan and Gricey’s marriage was not entirely happy but Joan is quietly distraught, convinced that she hears Gricey’s voice at his funeral. When she sees his understudy stepping into Gricey’s final role as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, she’s convinced her husband lives on so faithfully does young Frank Stone replicate his performance. She decides to offer the impecunious Frank one of Gricey’s suits, altering it for him until it’s a perfect fit. An intimacy forms between these two, one which Joan needs to hide from her daughter who is preparing for the leading role in The Duchess of Malfi. One day, while deciding which of Gricey’s coats would best suit Frank, she finds a badge hidden beneath a lapel. Gricey, it seems, was a fascist, a secret he kept from his Jewish wife but one that everyone else except his daughter knew. The discovery unhinges Joan with devastating consequences.

The Wardrobe Mistress is a beautifully turned out piece of work. McGrath is a master storyteller, unfolding his tale of grief and madness against a vividly evoked background of London in 1947, frozen and struggling with the continuing depredations of post-war austerity. Replete with period detail, there are a multitude of allusions to the theatre running through the novel. I’m sure that readers better acquainted with drama will recognise many more than I did. It has all the ingredients of a tragedy complete with occasional interpolations from the Chorus, often snidely knowing in keeping with the dark thread of humour which runs through the book: ‘was there to be no end to the qualities she discovered in him now he was dead’. Altogether an impressive, thoroughly enjoyable novel, far more chilling in its depiction of a mind deranged by grief and the shadow thrown by post-war fascism than the ghost story I was expecting.

The Orphans by Annemarie Neary: The kids are not alright

Cover imageI’m not an avid thriller reader as regular visitors here will know but last year one did find its way onto my books of the year list – Annemarie Neary’s Siren, notable for its sharp, pithy writing and smart psychological insights. Her new novel opens in Goa, a world away from Siren’s Northern Irish setting, where two children look up from playing on a beach to find that neither their father nor their mother is in sight.

Sophie and William have taken their kids off to Goa to live in a commune. Adored by four-year-old Sparrow – Row for short – Sophie is a vibrant character, beautiful, flirtatious and free-spirited. When the couple disappears, their friend Eddie steps in until William’s sister takes the children back to London. By then eight-year-old Jess has appointed herself her brother’s protector. While Jess tries her best to settle into a conventional middle-class life, Row is sent to boarding school. Several decades later, Jess is a lawyer living with her husband and baby daughter in an expensive, beautifully decorated fortress of a house close by to where she was brought up while Row spends his time following leads, convinced that his mother is still alive. When a sighting takes him to Curramona where his mother once lived, he confronts her old friend Mags whose suggestion that Sophie might still be alive, keeping herself close to Jess, has devastating consequences.

Like Siren, The Orphans is very much a psychological thriller, exploring the effects of childhood trauma which ripple through into adulthood. Jess is tightly wound, always in control yet desperate enough for safety and security to make a bad marriage. In contrast, Row leads a rackety life, always searching for his mother, heedless of risk to himself and others. Neary’s writing is as sharp and vivid as I remembered it. Her narrative slips easily from Jess’ perspective to Row’s and back again, spilling small details of the puzzle. When the resolution comes it’s pleasingly open, avoiding easy explanations. The novel felt less taut than Siren if it’s a straightforward white-knuckle ride you’re after but if you’re a fan of the psychological thriller there’s plenty here to keep your attention.

How to Be Human by Paula Cocozza: Outfoxed

Cover imageHow to Be Human is one of those books I was in two minds about before reading, and perhaps still am, although it comes with a spiffy endorsement from Hilary Mantel, enough to make a debut novelist’s heart sing. Set in Hackney, on a housing development edged by what estate agents would no doubt term ‘idyllic woodland’, it’s about Mary, who has kicked her fiancé out of their house, and the relationship that grows between her and one of the foxes whose territory the developers have colonised.

Mary opens the door one evening to find a baby on her back step, so quiet she’s not entirely sure it’s alive. It’s Flora, the daughter of her neighbours Michelle and Eric but rather than taking her home immediately, Mary brings her inside. Wind back four weeks and Mary is in the midst of a disciplinary process, constantly late to her dull job at the local university. She rarely sees anyone, hasn’t contacted friends since her fiancé Mark reluctantly left after one more row made abundantly clear their relationship was at an end, and knows few of her neighbours. She’s spotted a handsome fox who seems to be delivering presents to her – one day an old pair of boxers which look suspiciously like Mark’s, another a perfect egg, entirely empty – and becomes fond of him much to her neighbours’ annoyance. One day Eric asks her to babysit. Mary spends an enjoyable evening, poking around the strangely familiar yet entirely different counterpart to her own house and discovering the joys of holding a baby. A little restless, she takes a walk around the neighbourhood, bumping into Mark who she meets again at Eric and Michelle’s disastrous barbeque, and finds herself softening towards him. One night in Mary’s bed and Mark assumes he’s back in her life but he has a rival: Mary has begun to welcome the fox into her house.

Paula Cocozza explores themes of isolation and madness through Mary who begins to see her fox as her beloved, deftly weaving  the failure of humans to understand their impact on the natural world through her story. Her writing is arresting – ’It was calming to emulate someone else’s sensible behaviour’; ‘She was still waiting for him to remove his things from her head’; ‘Somehow, having been seen with the baby made Mary feel more with the baby’ – all neatly convey Mary’s disordered state of mind. There’s a nice thread of humour running thorough it – the barbeque put me in mind of Abigail’s Party – which balances the claustrophobia of Mary’s decline. Michelle and Eric’s predilection for soft furnishings, wildly patterned with all manner of things from the natural world, contrast sharply and effectively with their hostility to the reality. Cocozza steers clear of the whimsy that might have crept into her portrayal of Mary’s feelings for her fox but the brief passages from the fox’s perspective jarred for me, leaving me wondering how I should interpret them. It’s a compelling novel, convincing in its depiction of a woman barely clinging to the shreds of her sanity and, on the whole, a success but I’m not quite as enthusiastic as Mantel, although you might prefer to trust her opinion over mine. Great jacket, though.

That’s it from me for a week or so. H and I are off to explore Split, inspired by Rick Stein’s Long Weekends TV series which brightened up our evenings last year. We’re hoping for a bit of sun, a spot of culture and some quiet reading.

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore: The rights of women

Cover imageHere’s one I’ve been looking forward to ever since I spotted it in the publisher’s catalogue. Helen Dunmore’s new novel, Birdcage Walk, is set in her home town of Bristol against the backdrop of the French Revolution raging across the Channel while Britain looks nervously on. It’s the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, who is intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge.

Lizzie’s mother has brought her up to be an independent woman, reflecting her own radical, egalitarian beliefs. Julia is often to be found scratching out pamphlets, sometimes dictated to her by Lizzie’s hopelessly impractical stepfather. Neither of them is fond of Diner whose speculative building plans run counter to their principles but Lizzie conceived a passion for him and was determined to have him. His first wife died in her native France: apart from those barest of bones, he refuses to talk of her but Lucie haunts this marriage.  When Julia dies in childbirth, Lizzie resists Diner’s annoyance, taking her half-brother into the show house that has become their home. Passion is cooling and Lizzie is unsettled by Diner’s jealous need to know her whereabouts. As the news from France finds its way across the Channel, Diner’s plans are undermined – no one wants to sink their capital in a house, no matter how splendid, with the possibility of war on the horizon. Mired in debt, he decides they must make their escape and a revelation is made.

Politics, both national and domestic, runs through Dunmore’s novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling with a thread of suspense. Brought up to believe ‘that a woman must not be weak, but instead learn to fend for herself’, Lizzie has been made dependent on her husband by the law which prevents married women from owning property. It can be no coincidence that much of the action takes place in 1792, the year in which Mary Wollstonecraft published her seminal work, A Vindication of the Right of Women. As ever Dunmore’s writing is striking – ‘Do you really think that the storm in France will not blow my hat off?’ asks Diner; ‘Memory. What was that to set against the worms?’ reflects Lizzie in her grief – and her characters beautifully observed. She expertly pulls taut the tension that runs through this marriage between a woman used to freedom and a man who assumes it’s his right to control her. Not Dunmore at her absolute best – the sensuous prose of Talking to the Dead and the sharpness of Exposure remain my favourites – but an engrossing novel, made all the more vivid for me by its setting, a mere ten-minute train ride from where I live. I’ve often walked along the Royal York Crescent on which Diner’s vision is based. It’ll be hard to do that now without thinking of Lizzie, her half-brother wrapped tightly in her shawl, as she makes her way up onto the Downs.

It’s such a sadness to know that this will be Dunmore’s last novel. She has quietly delivered some of the finest writing produced by her generation. Even when writing of facing her own death she is gracefully, elegantly restrained. An enormous talent – how I will miss that frisson of delight that greets the announcement of a new book from her.

I’ll Take You There by Wally Lamb: Men can be feminists, too

Cover imageI can’t say I embraced the prospect of Wally Lamb’s new novel entirely enthusiastically: I’d read his first, She’s Come Undone, which was praised to the skies by all and sundry but left me cold, and the blurb mentions ghosts which I found distinctly off-putting. You might wonder, then, why I decided to read it. The answer is that it appeared to be a feminist novel by a man, a phenomenon well worth investigating.

Felix Funicello is a sixty-year-old professor of film studies. Divorced, he adores his daughter Aliza, encouraging her in her journalistic career, and is on good enough terms with his ex-wife. He’s the brother of two sisters, both of whom he loves dearly. One Monday night, setting up in the gloriously old-fashioned cinema in which he runs his film club, an apparition appears introducing herself as Lois Weber, a silent movie director much overlooked by her male colleagues and wanting the record put straight. She tells Felix that he’s been chosen as ‘educable’, playing him footage of significant scenes from his life and occasionally directing him to ‘re-enter’ those scenes. As he watches his family, Felix is hit by a wave of nostalgia accompanied by the benefit of hindsight. He overhears his beautiful sister Simone confide her boss’s sexual harassment to their mother and his mother’s inadequate response; he watches his sister Francis throwing herself into the Rheingold Girls beauty pageant election and her terrible struggles with anorexia. As Lois shows Felix more of his life, the pieces of his own personal jigsaw begin to fall into place until he understands the women in his life far better.

Narrated in the first person, Lamb’s novel is written in a very direct, conversational style. It bowls along nicely, interweaving Felix’s family story with historical context and movie trivia. Those worrying  ‘ghost’ scenes are carried off with humour, smartly avoiding any painful creakiness. Felix’s hindsight allows Lamb to smoothly make points about the tyranny of beauty, the exploitation of women’s insecurities and the casual dismissal of women’s potential and achievements. Aliza’s blog post towards the end of the novel is a neat riposte to her mother’s angry dismissal of ‘post-feminism’ in which she argues that a new generation of feminists is attacking sexist attitudes using a different set of tools. I’ll Take You There is a very rare thing: an enjoyable, commercial novel with a broad, deep streak of feminism running through it, and it’s written by a man. I won’t be catching up with Lamb’s backlist anytime soon but this one proved to be well worth my time.

This may well be my last review for 2016. The rest of December’s posts are likely to be taken up with looking forwards and back in that time-honoured fashion for the last month of the year.

Siren by Annemarie Neary: The past is a foreign country

Cover imageI’m not a thriller kind of gal – well only the televised kind, usually with a Scandiland backdrop – but the setting of Annemarie Neary’s debut and the fact that I was still hauling myself out of my flu-induced reading slump before going on holiday made me reach for it. It’s the story of Róisín, brought face to face with the past she’s been trying to bury for more than twenty years when she sees the man who dragged her into the Troubles in Belfast looking set to become leader of his political party.

Siren opens with the incident that will set the seal on the rest of Róisín’s life: the murder of a soldier – a ‘legitimate target’ in Lonergan’s parlance – who she has unwittingly helped to lure into a trap. Mousey and shy, Róisín is flattered when she’s picked out by the brash, sophisticated new girl in her class who invites her on a night out, unaware that she’s being used. When Dolores’ face appears as a photofit on the front pages of the newspapers after the atrocity, Róisín is terrified that she’ll be identified too but no one remembers the nondescript friend dancing at the discotheque. Soon Lonergan comes calling, demanding another job but this time offering a way out once it’s done. Before she makes her escape, Róisín is witness to another atrocity and it is in the hope of doing justice for this that she takes herself off to Lamb Island, decades later, where Lonergan has a house from which he conducts his dodgy business dealings. An ill-judged, drunken email sent late one night before she left New York has alerted him to her plans and there’s a reception committee: Theo the Dutchman – all silky charm – and Boyle the creepy voyeur, only too willing to keep an eye on Róisín for Lonergan.

From its superbly dramatic opening, Siren had me in its grip. Neary takes her time revealing Róisín’s past, leaking small details into her narrative and occasionally bringing her readers up short. Róisín is cleverly drawn, her teenage naiveté making her the perfect prey for Lonergan, as is Boyle with his sinister references to the previous occupant of Róisín’s rented bungalow. Neary’s writing is sharp and clean, often vivid in its intensity, coupled with an astute psychological insight. When I was reading it I was reminded a little of Lionel Shriver’s Ordinary Decent Criminals, published long before We Need to Talk about Kevin brought her fame but, for me, a much better book. Obviously, Siren’s ending is out-of-bounds as far as this review’s concerned but it’s a satisfying one. Altogether a smart, stylish piece of writing – far pithier than either Attica Locke’s Pleasantville or S J Bolton’s Second Life, both recent ventures into thriller territory for me, and all the better for it. I’ll be interested to see what Neary comes up with next.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore: A Cold War tale of love, betrayal and espionage

Cover imageA new Helen Dunmore’s always a treat for me. Regular visitors may have noticed that she’s the writer I cite when complaining about the ratio of acclaim given to male and female writers.  Exposure has already garnered much in the way of review coverage but when it comes to ranking writers in the contemporary literary canon McEwan, Barnes, Rushdie etc. etc. always seem to win out over the likes of the extremely talented Dunmore. Enough of that for now – no doubt it’s a theme that will be revisited. Like Francesca Kay’s The Long Room, Dunmore’s new novel is set during the Cold War with all its attendant paranoia but whereas events in Kay’s book take place in 1981, Exposure opens in 1960

Three people listen to a train whistle blow: Lily is in the garden, a little unnerved by the noise before realising there’s nothing to worry about; Gus hears it, too, but is unmoved, knowing ‘exactly which train he will catch, if he ever needs to disappear’; ten year-old Paul adores trains and wonders if his father will take him to King’s Cross again soon. Lily was once Lili, a German-Jewish refugee, now married to Simon, son of the landed gentry with whom he’s disassociated himself. He’s almost as obsessed with trains as his son, dashing home from his work at the Admiralty to play with Paul, Sally and five-year-old Bridget. Gus also works for the Admiralty. Educated, well-travelled, sophisticated, louche – he’s a little past his sell-by date and suspected of dallying with Moscow. Trips to the Nightshade to pick up boys are no longer passing without comment. Gus is thick with the high-ranking Julian Clowde and has taken the liberty of bringing a top-secret file home. Up in his attic hidey-hole all seems secure until he takes a drunken tumble, lands himself in hospital and calls upon his old friend Simon to remove the file. For the sake of loyalty and love, Simon agrees but decides not to return it that night as Gus has urgently instructed. Before long those in the Admiralty who have Gus in their sights have sprung into action.

You could describe Exposure as a thriller – not the first Dunmore has written; the wonderfully taut, sensual Talking to the Dead is one of my favourites of hers – but it’s very much more than that. A triumph of storytelling, Exposure is a subtle exploration of loyalty, betrayal and love. The bond that binds Simon to Gus despite long since turning his back on their past relationship, the fierce love Lily has for their children and the almost painfully adult protectiveness they grow to have for her are all beautifully drawn. Dunmore’s writing is always striking, each word carefully chosen. ‘Moscow? It’s like Birmingham, my dears, but without the bright lights’ perfectly conveys Gus’s self-regarding showy wit. Lily’s solicitor is ‘the kind of man who would always know, without even having to think about it, that Lily was a Jew’ summons up 1960s anti-Semitism vividly while Julian contemptuously dismisses her as ‘Exactly the kind of woman to make trouble. Jewish, of course’. It’s an engrossing story well spun, replete with the kind of period detail that has you smelling the coal fires Lily kindles in the chilly Kent cottage the family finds itself in. Gripping storytelling, subtle characterisation and beautifully crafted prose: another Dunmore triumph then

The Clasp by Sloane Crosley: Growing up is hard to do

Cover imageSloane Crosley has published two collections of essays including one with the wonderfully peevish title I Was Told There’d be Cake, or at least it sounds peevish to me which may tell you something about how I feel about cake and broken promises. The Clasp is her first novel, a classic comedy of manners in which a group of old friends from college are reunited – some eager to catch up, some not so much – all finding that life is turning out not quite as they expected. It’s also a witty homage to ‘The Necklace’, Guy de Maupassant’s short story about a woman who, feeling cheated of the luxurious life she feels is her due, borrows a necklace but loses it spending the rest of her life paying for a replacement only to find the original was a fake.

Victor finds himself sitting at a table the other side of the room from his college friends at Caroline’s wedding. He knows she dislikes him but ostracism seems a step too far. Across the room he can see his friends Kezia and Nathaniel happily chatting. Victor’s been nursing a decade-long crush on Kezia who in turn longs for Nathaniel. Nathaniel, it seems, lusts after anything in a pretty package but is currently obsessed with the extraordinarily beautiful but absent Bean. When Victor is sent off on a quest for a bottle of whiskey, he falls asleep in one of the bedrooms and is embarrassed to wake up alongside the groom’s mother who shows him a drawing of an ornate necklace and tells him its story. This is the catalyst that will change Victor’s life. Taking her readers from a Florida society wedding to Paris and Normandy by way of Hollywood and New York, Crosley weaves an enjoyable tale around these three who by the end of it may actually be ready to enter the adult world.

A decade after leaving college Victor’s been sacked from his job as a data scientist, Kezia’s brave leap from the corporate jewellery world has backfired and Nathaniel’s apparent success is not at all what he allows his friends to think. Crosley has a fine line in sharp observations on that stage of life when realisation is beginning to dawn: ‘There’s something morbid about weddings. Like high school yearbook photos. Like we’re all being prepped for the slide show of our funerals’ says Victor morosely. Her portrayal of Americans ex-pats and their view of the French is particularly acerbic – ‘No wonder Grey was so unhappy. Parisians were glamorously tattered and superior down to their tile grout’ – not to mention the vapidity that pervades Hollywood and its obsession with ever wackier fads. You have to suspend your disbelief at times – it’s all somewhat improbable – but if you can do that it’s a thoroughly entertaining, smartly funny read. A tad too long, though, but that seems to be a frequent lament for me.

The Last Boat Home by Dea Brøvig: Dark secrets in ’70s Norway

Cover imageAfter the pyrotechnics of Siri Hustvedt’s new novel last week I felt in need of something a little less taxing, something engaging but not too challenging. Dea Brøvig’s The Last Boat Home looked a likely candidate. It’s a first novel set in a tiny community on the Norwegian coast. Two narrative strands alternate between the mid-70s, when Else was just sixteen, and 2009, when her first love, Lars, brings his young family and second wife back home to live. Else is already a grandmother – her plans to leave Torgatta scuppered by teenage pregnancy – and her relationship with her daughter Marianne is fractious. She adores her granddaughter, eleven-year-old Liv, but frets about Marianne’s flibberty-gibbet ways, sceptical about her relationship with Mads, a Swedish dancer. Back in the mid-70s, Torgatta is inward looking, gossip ridden, prurient and pious. Life is hard – Else must milk the cow before school – and made more so by her drunken father who beats his wife. Lars is the son of the local shipyard owner, more than a cut above Else who keeps their relationship secret. Into this most insular of communities comes the circus with all its excitements. Three members stay behind, Valentin the strong man and the Bezrukov brothers one of whom has his eye on Else.

Unsurprisingly, there’s a dark secret to be revealed – it’s a Scandi novel, after all – and Brøvig is good at keeping us guessing, leading us up a few blind alleys so that the revelation and its consequences is a shock when it comes. Torgatta’s insularity is sharply portrayed  – piety, hypocrisy and gossip go hand in hand – with Pastor Seip sitting in judgement on them all while turning his nose up at the chicory which is offered when his congregants can’t afford coffee. The contrast between pre-oil rich ‘70s Norway and 2009, when the rest of us were still reeling from the global financial meltdown, is well drawn. It’s an absorbing novel which calmed my fizzing brain down nicely after Ms Hustvedt’s cerebral book. And why wasn’t that on the Baileys longlist?

The Lie by Helen Dunmore: Shines out like a beacon

Cover imageWhen I was asked by the lovely people at We Love This Book to nominate the book I was most looking forward to in 2014 it gave me an excellent excuse to wade through publishers’ catalogues checking out their forthcoming goodies. Tempting as many of them were, the new Helen Dunmore shone out like a beacon. I have long been a fan of Dunmore’s writing. She’s only put one foot wrong for me – Counting the Stars which felt like something of an aberration – but The Lie more than makes up for that.

Daniel has come home from the war, unscathed in body but not in mind. Living in a makeshift shelter on Mary Pascoe’s smallholding, he nurses her through her final illness, burying her as she wished on her own land rather than in the churchyard, taking over the smallholding and running it as she wanted him to, all the while keeping himself to himself and telling no one of her death. Threaded through Daniel’s narrative are vivid memories of his boyhood friendship with Frederick, the son of his mother’s employer, and nightmarish scenes from the battlefield, each occasionally overlaying the other. His nights, and sometimes his days, are disturbed by Frederick’s visits, ‘clagged in mud from head to foot’. When he meets Frederick’s sister Felicia, nineteen, war-widowed and mother to Jeannie, a bond begins to form forged out of loneliness, memory and an aching absence. Daniel’s continued pretence that Mary is still confined to her bed eventually arouses suspicion. Tongues begin to wag.

Daniel returns to a Cornwall unchanged from the place he grew up in, and yet everything has changed. Resentments of those who escaped the horror are inevitable. He is not the boy he was when he left: quick to suspect, easily angered. The Lie’s overarching theme is the appalling psychological and emotional costs of war but it’s also a novel about class. Daniel’s mother was widowed when she was twenty, barely scraping a living cleaning the houses of the rich. Daniel left school at eleven, a blind eye turned to the law so that he can work. He and Frederick become close friends – blood brothers – but it is Daniel who reads the books in Mr Dennis’ library – previously unread, bought by the yard as decoration – memorising the poems that ‘swarm, crowding me like bees’ in the shell-holes of France. Fiercely intelligent, Daniel longs for an education but his mother cannot afford the grammar school’s fees. When they go to war Frederick becomes an officer, Daniel a private but the love between them endures against all the rules. Daniel is left quite literally haunted by his failure to save Frederick.

Dunmore’s use of language and imagery is breathtaking, shining out in a narrative of spare simplicity: now there are no servants rich people ‘live in their own houses like children, not knowing how things work’; ‘Off she goes, to work her black seam of gossip’ perfectly describes Mrs Quick’s disapproval; departing soldiers see ’England sidle backwards, as if it was trying to escape’ – they have not volunteered: ‘They came to get us. Winkled us out of our shells, raw as we were.’ Recurring motifs conjure unimaginable horrors – bodies, buried but reappearing from shelled graves in a sickening parody of the resurrection; the stink of ‘mud, shit, rotting flesh and cordite’; rats who ’eye us up like chums’. We’re reminded, several times, that many of those at the front were barely out of childhood when Daniel notices that he’s grown out of his old clothes. I could go on but you get my drift. It’s a work of quite extraordinary talent. It’s long been a mystery to me that Dunmore isn’t spoken of in the same terms as McEwan, Amis, Rushdie and Barnes, the male cannon of her generation. For me, she’s better than all of them put together.